Sunday 6 May 2018

Jack Benny on the Humour of Jack Benny

What made Jack Benny funny?

That question was asked, analysed, and answered over the years, including by Benny himself. One place where he gave his insights was in the April 1937 edition of Motion Picture Insider magazine.

Today, Benny is considered a master of television and radio but his film career is pretty much dismissed. That’s even though he was employed by several studios simultaneously at one point, and his movies in the ‘30s were hits at the box office. They just aren’t very memorable today, with few exceptions.

So it was that the movie magazines wrote about Benny and his radio cast, and therefore we find the article below. I don’t know if Jack would have used the word “withal” in a conversation, but it’s there. He also mentions Al Boasberg, who might have been a regular member of his writing staff if he hadn’t died in 1937. The stock photos accompanied the article.

An exclusive interview with JACK BENNY who expounds his theory of comedy for the benefit of the laugh-conscious. There are surprises in his story for those who believe that the jokes which amuse an entire continent are simple to deliver so that they are funny. Humor is a complicated art, and JACK BENNY herein explains its many facets.
THE world loves to laugh at a man in trouble, providing the trouble is embarrassing but not too serious.
This was the philosophy expressed by Jack Benny, leading radio, screen and stage star, when asked to discuss the psychology upon which his humor is based.
“To illustrate, what is funnier than a man slipping on a banana peel and his resulting gyrations as he tries to maintain his balance, or a man who accidentally rips an essential part of his clothing at a crucial moment, both painful to the victim perhaps, but extremely funny withal.
“I don’t believe that this proves that the human race is essentially cruel, but I believe that laughs are born partly from a certain primitive sense of superiority over the victim. At the same time, while we laugh at them, we feel sorry for them and are in sympathy with them. I know this is getting kind of involved, so we won’t pursue the quest into the realm of psychology much further. But I do know that all great comedians of our time have pursued that method. They have become involved in embarrassing situations, thus arousing the risibilities of the audience.
“Take for example the man I feel is the greatest comedian of our day, Charlie Chaplin. His whole career was built on getting into and out of just such situations. He illustrates perfectly what I mean. We would split our sides at his antics, but always there was something just a bit pathetic about him. He captured and portrayed the true spirit of clean comedy and his psychology was basic.
“Others who have employed the same, with their own variations and methods are Will Rogers, Harold Lloyd, Ed Wynn; I could go on and enumerate all great comedians. This proves, I believe, that you must have comic situations, not just gag lines. And that is what we strive for in our radio program. Mere cracking of jokes back and forth gives no flavor that lingers, nothing that people can talk about the next day.
“Early in my own career I discovered that in order to be successful I would have to be in trouble, and I have been in hot water ever since! In my on-stage moments, I mean. To give you a pertinent incident or two, consider my consistently getting the worst of it in my fights with Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Kenny Baker, and now lately, with Fred Allen.
“Always it must be the lead, the star, who is the goat, in order to get that favorable public reaction. I could not pick on anybody else all the time without my listeners feeling too sorry for him, and being angry with me. However, it is perfectly all right for all the rest of them to pick on me.”

Mr. Benny went further in outlining this. He pointed out that each actor on his program was chosen to depict a certain phase of humor. That a line would bring a laugh when spoken by Andy Devine but fall flat perhaps when read by Kenny Baker. Each of them of course could embarrass the star but each also had to do so in his own way.
“Situations have to have a certain continuity,” Mr. Benny continued, “in order to maintain that week to week interest, like our ‘Buck Benny Rides Again’ series which we recently concluded. Listening audiences wait for each new adventure and thus we maintain a continuity of interest that is so essential for a successful series.”
Bit by bit Mr. Benny analyzed the component parts which make for continued success in the comedy world, proving himself a keen student of mass psychology, as well as a philosopher.
Because it has taken both study and work to bring him from his early beginnings as a fiddler in Waukegan, Illinois, to where he is today, voted by more than four hundred critics the most popular purveyor of humor on the air.
Way stations along that arduous route include being an entertainer at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station during the war years, the regular vaudeville stage, a motion picture career that started with the “Hollywood Review of 1929” for M-G-M and a radio debut dating back but four short years.

He was married in 1927 to Sadye Marks, who is today known on the air as Mary Livingstone. She made her start in radio one night when one of the regular players failed to appear. Her part was only two lines. The next week she appeared on the air again and then left the program. After waiting two weeks, Benny’s radio audience became impatient and bombarded him with letters demanding that Mary return. She has never missed a program, since.
We also exemplify Benny’s basic psychology of humor in that listeners enjoy tremendously Mary’s putting him “on the spot”.
Mr. Benny is even more charming if that is possible, to meet personally than he is to listen to over the air or see on the screen. Perfectly poised, with a resonant voice, excellent diction, and an agile, keen mind. He is at home on any subject. Modest and unassuming, he gives much of the credit for his success to his co-workers, and his authors, Bill Morrow, Ed Beloin and Al Boasberg. His conversation is constantly interlarded with praise for others who have helped him achieve the success he now enjoys. While he is admittedly “tops” in his chosen field, one has only to meet the man to feel that his efforts and personality would have won for him success in any other type of endeavor.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this! Jack Benny, as we all know, was a master of comedy timing and reading his own words about comedy clearly illustrates just how serious he took comedy. He spoke in some detail about his approach to comedy in a 1972 documentary called "Great Radio Comedians". It's on-line.